Today is my 28th birthday and this year I am giving myself the gifts of ambition, hope, freedom. This month I quit my day job.
It isn't quite that cut and dry. Since last March (excepting a few weeks before the holidays) I had been putting in only 20 hours a week at my day job, a framing shop/commercial gallery. For even more context, this is not the first time I've quit my job to focus on my art. This is the first time I've done it without the belief that I will find something else in 2-6 months. It was not a cavalier decision. I know that the last year has been hard on a lot of people to the point of losing jobs that they wanted to keep.
My original goal was to do this at the end of 2021, at which point my partner and I have another inter-provincial move planned. I would keep my job until I couldn't and then when we landed in our new city, I wouldn't have to look for another one because I could transition to full-time Penrose. But here I am at a crossroads and I've saved enough to have a decent financial buffer. The buffer helps to assuage the fears of my family and partner. As for me, I'm scared of not taking this risk. I'm scared of the burnout that has been coming up on my heels since November. I'm scared that all the boxes I fit myself into to be a decent employee will become my personality. Self-employment is definitely not for everyone. If you like your job, for goodness sake, keep it! But it is for me and I have known this deep within myself for a long time.
The Birth of Penrose Press
Penrose wasn't planned, per se (sorry baby). It came out of a project that was so wonderful to work on and to share with the world that I said "let's do that again!". This project is, of course, Joyce Jodie Kim's Caterpillar Portraits. Joyce and I were both students, both enrolled in a Creative Writing elective, both earnest as could be. We had big dreams and the blind optimism to acheive them.
Lots of "Book Artists" (though we are a bit of an amorphous category) write, illustrate, and construct their own books, completely solo. I had tried this a bit and was always proud of the design, a bit sheepish about the writing. It occured to me, while I was listening to Joyce read her assignment (what became the librarian chapter of Caterpillair Portraits) that my design and Joyce's writing could come together and make something far better than either of us could manage independently.
I proposed to Joyce something crazy: let's publish 100 of this not-yet-written book. We'll split the cost of materials 50/50 and then try to sell it. Joyce would write, I would illustrate, and we could produce it during my last semester of uni, and launch it in the fall when the new crop of students arrived. For context: this conversation took place over winter break, and my last semster of uni consisted of an incredibly ambitious thesis project, and a full+1 course load.
I'd like to say that I've learned not to bite of more than I can chew but in reality, I've just learned to chew more efficiently.
The crazier thing is, it happened. Production was more of a summer event than an in-semester one. I was joined in Penrose by a friend from highschool whose dream was to become a book editor. Natalie proved invaluable to making sure this book (as well as the next 8) was actually finished and cohesive in time for me to illustrate and print it! You've probably heard this part before: the books sold out in two days. We had friends and family desperately messaging: can you save me one? We could not. It was a hit.
There were a couple problems with it being a hit. Firstly, we didn't know what made it a hit. Was it the story? The cover design? The printmaking/hand binding quality? The infectious enthusiasm that all of the contributors brought to the project? I'd put my money on that last one. The second problem was that the publishing was financially unsustainable. We had received a $ 1500 project grant from The Ada Slaight Foundation (the first, and only project grant I have received at the time of this writing) so Joyce and I didn't have to use our own money to buy materials. However, we sold 100 copies at $30 ea for a total of $3000 profit. Joyce was paid her half, and Natalie and I each pocketed about $150 and put the rest towards funding more projects. Even if I had taken half and called it a day, I would have made $1500 for approximately 500 hours work. That's a $3/hour wage, and let me tell you, you cannot afford to live in Toronto on that, no matter how thrifty you are.
So Natalie and I said "let's do it again" but this time in addition to design (that's always been the easier part for me) I was spending a lot of time thinking about and trying to learn how we might do it in a profitable way. I was lucky to find a niche and a style, and a format for collaboration early in my career (not to say that those things never changed, they certainly did) but I knew that I couldn't do it forever purely for the pleasure of it. I would burn out before I hit thirty if I went that route. My goal has always been to eliminate the need for a day job.
Podcasts and How to Run a Creative, Online, Product-Based Business
If I had a dollar for every hour of podcast studying I've put in, I could've quit my day job sooner. Okay, maybe not quite, but it was a lot.
It took me a minute to develop the keywords listed above. See, the "creative" doesn't refer to making something, it refers to aproaching business from a non-traditional angle. Sometimes, unfortunately, it refers to crystals and incense and what I'vecome to know as "woo"? Not my jam. "Product-based" was important for me to narrow in on, as opposed to "service-based". I also preferred hearing from women, as they spoke more often about successful creative business as a path to the life you want, which is more nuanced than as a path to more money. Here are a few of my favourite Podcasts and what I enjoyed about them:
- The Business of Making - 3 Australian women who run their own hand-made product businesses teach specific lessons to "makers" who want to build their hobby into a sustainable business. The specific lessons aspect of this, as well as the hive-mind make it a consistently valuable listen. I like that they don't do very many interviews (maybe none?) because case studies don't always know why they were successful. Jess, Mik, and Deb also pioneered "The Status of Handmade Survey" and published the results so you can see who is making a living and what other goals we have as a group.
- The Create and Thrive Podcast - Jess Van Den, one of the women from The Business of Making has her own podcast that predates the collective one and has a huge backlog of lessons. Similar content, with a few interviews, and a bit of a focus on Etsy, which was mildly annoying to me last year, but is now useful, since I've recently uploaded my work to the marketplace, just to have another sales avenue. I actually enrolled in Jess's paid course "The Thriver's Circle" for about a year starting in 2019. I mostly really liked it, and the best part was the facebook group of students all with similar priorities and at similar stages. I didn't love the email-drip format of the lessons (one per week) because I couldn't consume it at my own pace and eventually lost track of the planned trajectory. I think that's a matter of personal preference.
- The Traffic & Conversions Show - it sounds gross but understanding what a sales funnel is, is useful. Michelle goes into some very specific copywriting and page layout tips which are great. Plus she reminds me of one of my aunts.
- Creative Pep Talk - Andy J Pizza is just awesome. Some really cool thought-pieces are presented with an excellent, up-beat vibe. I really like Andy's take on social media and audiences where he encourages the listener to focus on the long game and consider the powers of momentum and exponential growth (I'm sorry, I don't know what episode). Reccommended to me by a creative biz peer Phoebe Taylor (OkayShoe).
- Do it for the Process - Emily Jeffords has some smart insights. I learned about her through Emma Natter (more on her in a minute) and I love having an example of a painter (not a floral designer or an illustrator or a jeweler) who is not only surviving but thriving. Even if I don't want the same life she has, it's nice to know that that is possible.
- The Unofficial Shopify Podcast - A couple of clever web developers break down Shopify-specific features and frustrations, and analyse a different ecommerce site every week.
These are not the only podcasts that I have listened to but they are the only ones still saved in my "Favourites" tab on Stitcher.
Night Classes in Entreprenurship
I mentioned that I enrolled with Jess Van Den in The Thrivers Circle in 2019. In 2020, I enrolled in a new course (only one at a time for me) with Emma Natter. Emma's course is called The Aesthetic Way. It edges towards woo but has been so helpful I barely notice. I usually describe the Aesthetic Way as translated business advice for aesthetic-based businesses. It's really frustrating as a printmaker/bookartist to hear "what pain point are you solving for your customer?" over and over again. It doesn't really work like that. Can a lack of specific beauty be referred to as "pain"? I couldn't say. Emma is teaching me to reframe my business around storytelling (*cough* this blog post *cough*) and she doesn't ask questions that make my usually active mind go blank. She strongly emphasizes trial and error and throwing spaghetti at the wall without wasting pasta.
Breakups and Self-Discovery...
Listening to podcasts while working at my day job (shh, also go read Art Adjacent Employment) and making more and more unique books was barely moving the needle. If I'm being honest with myself, it took a sad business breakup for me to identify what I really wanted/needed. I am no longer being carried by blind optimism.
In the last year I've learned that collaboration doesn't work if you want similar things but not the same. If I want to sell 100 books at a rate that will allow me a living wage during the months that it takes to lovingly produce them, and my collaborator wants to sell 40 books a month for a living wage indefinitely... then our goals are out of alignment in a way that will stifle the project. I used to think "close enough" and now I know that transparency, boundary setting, and alignment from start to finish are everything.
I used to feel guilty whenever I shared a print that wasn't directly related to a book collaboration on the Penrose Press instagram (a place where I have used first-person pronouns for years). Now I know that those prints are essential for unwinding my brain, for trying new techniques, and for meeting likeminded people.
It's a Quiet Celebration
Part of me is in full-on celebration mode. Another part of me is quieter, more determined, taking in a really deep breath. This is... soo cheesy... this is the start of the rest of my life. This has been my daydream going on 5+ years. I am sure that parts of it will be disappointing, and I won't feel this sense of freedom and euphoria and accomplishment every day. But I'm also sure that there are cool things in my future that I can't even fathom right now and this is the first step to meet them. I am so incredibly grateful for the support of everyone who ever decided that their life would be gently improved by the presence of one of my artworks. I am still warmed when I see an order from a friend, and amazed when I see an order from a stranger. You have directly impacted my life for the better. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
On the Menu in 2021: Poetry 3 Ways
What this change means concretely is that I have more time to make books and art. That's what we're all here for, right? Working with Evelyn on Conversations with the Ocean this Summer/Fall has been so amazing. We really outdid ourselves.
Over the next 6-9 months I'm working with three more poets in different stages of their careers to serve up three different book formats with (come to think of it!) three different illustration styles! I can promise you, they will be a feast for the senses! You can stay up to date by signing up for these sweet emails, or following along on Instagram.
The other thing I will have time for is personal linocut and card projects! I have a brand new print titled "Escapist Lit" and a kind-of birthday card (ha). Give the gift of inspiration! All your people have birthdays this year.